A group biography of four writers who are held as standard-bearers for a new movement in 20th-century literature.
Historical periods rarely break into neat divisions, but Goldstein, the founding editor of the New York Times book website and current critic for NBC’s Weekend Today in New York, makes a solid case for 1922 as the climacteric in which the modern era began—modern, that is to say, in the sense of literary and artistic modernism. His four cases in point—Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, and D.H. Lawrence—produced significant, even definitive work that year. Perhaps most significantly, Eliot published The Waste Land, forever altering the poetic landscape by showing that nightmare and saga could be brought to bear on the neurasthenic postwar present. Not that Eliot was the nicest of guys, and perhaps a certain meanness of spirit defines modernism as much as any literary trope. As Goldstein writes, “Eliot often dealt in very narrow, very selective truth. Many of those who knew Eliot well…did not trust him.” Though 1922 was also the year in which the much-admired Marcel Proust died, Woolf took her cues from James Joyce and took as a challenge the need to “confront and pin down on paper the texture and vitality of a new landscape of the mind.” Interestingly, Goldstein traces her evolution as having been sparked by a kind of imagined writer’s block that led her to yield to what she called the “common sense of readers, uncorrupted with literary prejudice,” and began to produce inventive, experimental books in a challenge that she trusted those readers to accept. Goldstein writes assuredly and well of the work of his chosen four exemplars; though Lawrence is barely read these days, the others still hold up, and he brings fresh eyes to all of them.
An engaging, lightly worn literary study, of a piece with Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (1971) in divining the origins of the modern.